Ten Great Science Museums: Exploratorium

By Alan Lightman|Monday, November 01, 1993
A sudden crack of electricity. That scared me, shouts a youngster, half in happiness. Overhead, a tesla coil, suspended from a strut, has just let fly its lightning bolt. The strut connects to other struts; the ceiling lifts and lifts into a massive roof, stretching up and outward farther than the eye can see. It is a vast canyon of a place, a single giant room, two and a half acres of odd contraptions, motors, lenses, artificial dust storms, amoebas squirming on a video screen, echo tubes, water waves. Experiments in progress. Shouts and laughter. Two women play with the patterns of iron filings caught in the invisible grip of a magnet, get metallic powder on their hands, and laugh. An eight-year-old concentrates on breaking the parts of a new exhibit, does not succeed. No attendant dashes over to stop him, and he glories in his freedom. There are no rules.

The ten-year-old girl in the blue dress lies on the floor of her second-floor bedroom and wrestles with a magnet. It is a bar magnet. Its two ends push and pull in opposite directions. North and south poles. She wrestles with the magnet and tries to break it in two. Would one half become a new magnet with two north poles, the other half one with two souths?

Maybe if she splits the bar near one end, only the little piece will have both poles alike?

Or maybe the magnet won’t work at all. Her parents cannot answer her questions. She pounds the metal bar with shoes, with books, tries to cut it with a kitchen knife. Outside, her younger brother howls against her locked door. Her mother’s tiny voice threads up the stairway, calling her to lunch. But here in her room, with the rain pattering on the window, she is free, she explores, she pounds on her magnet. Finally, with screwdriver and hammer, she breaks it in two--and is astonished. Each piece has magically sprouted an opposite pole, a north and a south for each separate piece.

Near the entrance, a flood of sunlight is diverted by a mirror on the roof and channeled through a skylight down into the giant room, is diverted by another mirror and filtered through a group of hanging prisms. Emerging colors reflect again off dangling mirrors and gush onto a great screen, where they blend and shimmer with each jiggle of the dangling mirrors. Elsewhere, a child grabs a gyroscope and wonders how it tilts without falling over; another throws a ball into an upward stream of air and giggles as it becomes captured and suspended in space while spinning wildly. A grasshopper leg convulses, a rubber membrane quivers, a spring contracts. Endless gadgets, some unfinished, some unsolved. The canyon sprawls and beckons, open. There are no rooms, no doors, no designated plan. The gadgets beckon, waiting to be touched.

The girl in the blue dress, now 12, has made a pendulum from string and fishing weights. She sets it swinging back and forth and times its swing. She gets bored. She hunts around the house and tries odd objects for the pendulum’s weight: a silver dollar (held with tape), an orange, a piece of broccoli, her sister’s bra. All make one back-and-forth trip in the same time--two seconds. Do all pendulums have two-second swings? She notices the red glass elephant hanging on a nylon thread from her windowsill, set swinging when her cat brushed against it. She times its swing. One second. She ponders. She cuts her string and makes more pendulums of different lengths, times their swings. In her mind, she imagines pendulums of bronze and glass and porcelain, pendulums hanging from her bedroom ceiling, pendulums hanging from the tops of houses, from the tops of mountains and suspended over valleys, swinging back and forth, back and forth. Pendulums whose swings take hours, or days. Could the moon be a giant pendulum weight, suspended from Earth by an invisible string, its orbit one great back and forth? Or the swing of Earth about the sun?

From the massive roof hangs a pendulum, a 300-pound concrete block at its bottom. Got it, hollers a young man who has just tossed a tiny magnet at the metal sheath around the concrete block. With a string attached to the magnet, he gently tugs the great weight, tries to speed its oscillations. On the other side, his friend pulls on her string. They work in synchrony. They learn about resonance with their hands. You’re pulling in the wrong direction, shrieks a child who tugs on his own string, at right angles to the young woman. Another child stops and stares, walks on, walks past the bubbles and the sparks, wanders through the giant room and stops at the great echo tube. He climbs onto a footstool, puts his hands in the back pockets of his corduroy pants, yells, and listens. Anything could happen. Then he grins. He carefully places his blue and green marble in the tube and leaves. His parents follow, 20 feet behind, also spellbound in this canyon of endless possibilities, this single giant room, this sprawling, living space. People here feel as if they were dropped from a plane, the horizon stretching everywhere for miles.

The girl in the blue dress, now 30, awakens with a start. It is six o’clock. As the dim light trickles past the curtains, she tiptoes from her bedroom, trying not to wake her husband, and goes into her study down the hall. For months she has been stymied by an unsolved problem in physics. She is beyond the textbooks, nor can her colleagues at the university help. She is on her own. But now she feels a funny tingling. She paces. She stares at the sequence of equations on her white pad of paper. She shuts her eyes, her mind takes flight beyond the little room. Anything could happen. She sees a metal surface. Particles careen through space, bounce off the surface, their energies undiminished. No, that’s not it. She flies to other spaces, vast canyons in her mind. She observes in slow motion. The atoms in the surface. How should she see them? She imagines hazy clouds of electrons, no; then pendulums, no; then weights on springs. Yes. Springs laboring under friction. Yes. The careening particles compress the springs on each collision with the wall, the particles lose energy, the springs expand, contract, expand until they grind down to a halt and dissipate their energy as heat. She opens her eyes and sees the equations differently. In an hour of feverish work, she solves the problem mathematically. Later she will tell her colleagues, she will publish her results, but at this moment, while the world is still asleep, she laughs and celebrates alone.
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